You’ve probably heard of sustainable agriculture. But have you heard of regenerative agriculture?
Welcome to another installment in my “What is EcoMedicine?” series, part of my goal to create a compendium of well-researched scientific blogs on the various kinds of ecomedicine out there. Since there are so many kinds of ecomedicine out there, I want to help you find what you need to begin to feel better—with actual scientific facts about what works and what doesn’t.
Today, we’ll be asking and answering the questions: what is regenerative agriculture? Now, regenerative agriculture isn’t technically a form of ecomedicine, but it’s highly relevant for those of us concerned with the intersection of nature, food, health, and climate justice. In fact, it might be one of the most important ideas you’ll learn about this year—and yet so many people still haven’t even heard of it!
What is regenerative agriculture?
Most of us have an idea of what sustainable agriculture is about: creating a system of agriculture that maintains the health of the planet rather than depleting it. It’s a nice idea—but the problem is, it just doesn’t go far enough.
In contrast, regenerative agriculture is about more than just not harming the environment: it’s about making sure that our agriculture system actually helps regenerate the environment and makes it even better than we found it. It’s exactly the kind of vision we need for our planet if we want it to still be here — and thriving — in the future.
The folks at Regeneration International define it as “farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.”
At least five other groups (Rodale, Permaculture, Savory Institute, Krone and colleagues, Holistic Management Institute) are keenly interested in regenerative agriculture as part of what they do, and defining it, as it becomes part of the mainstream consciousness and parlance, especially in the natural products industry.
What they have in common is this: it’s not just about making sure the car doesn’t go off the cliff — it’s about turning that car around and heading towards a brighter, greener future!
Is there a regenerative medicine?
Yes, there is! Regenerative medicine is characterized as the process of replenishing or restoring human cells, tissues, or organs to restore or reestablish normal function, according to the Jeffrey Laurence author of Translating Regenerative Medicine to the Clinic. It’s been in medicine for about 60 years, since the first kidney transplants. Scott Stoll, who works with the Rodale Institute in their regenerative agricultural initiative, defines it differently and holistically: utilizing natural treatments, diet, and lifestyle to aid the body in healing chronic disease and injuries.
Why do we need regenerative agriculture?
Some of you might be wondering, why do we need regenerative agriculture? Isn’t sustainable agriculture enough?
According to Regeneration International, it really isn’t — not if we want fresh food to be more than just a nice bedtime story we tell our kids and grandkids. On the path we’re currently on, they say, “within 50 years we will not only suffer serious damage to public health due to a qualitatively degraded food supply characterized by diminished nutrition and loss of important trace minerals, but we will literally no longer have enough arable topsoil to feed ourselves.”
Soil plays a really important role here, as the way we treat our soil can make — or break — our response to climate change. An article from Science Progress called “The imperative for regenerative agriculture” explains further, calling soil “a pivotal component in a global nexus of soil-water-air-energy” and explaining the fact that “how we treat the soil can impact massively on climate change — with either beneficial or detrimental consequences, depending on whether the soil is preserved or degraded.”
So while sustainable agriculture might seek simply to not degrade the soil, regenerative agriculture seeks to preserve it and have a beneficial impact on climate change (rather than simply not having a detrimental effect).
Regenerative agriculture also acknowledges that we can’t simply try to heal the environment in isolation, as there are so many other factors tied up in it, whether they be social, governmental, economic, and more. But regenerative agriculture actually makes this into a plus rather than a minus, seeking to instead solve these problems together instead of considering them separately.
Regenerative agriculture seeks a global shift in the way we conceive of the relationship between our environment, our health, and the health of our societies — and this global shift can do far more than just fix the soil. When done right, says Regeneration International, regenerative agriculture can also increase crop yields, decrease GHG emissions, create drought-resistant soil, revitalize local economies, preserve traditional knowledge, nurture biodiversity, restore grasslands, increase farmer’s incomes, boost local economies, feed more people across the world, and increase nutrition.
When you look at it that way, we’d be crazy not to invest in worldwide regenerative agriculture!
How does regenerative agriculture work?
You might now see the incredibly wide-ranging benefits regenerative agriculture would have on our planet, food, health, and societies and be totally sold on the idea. But how does regenerative agriculture actually work in practice?
It’s simple, really. Regenerative agriculture is all about using different technologies to revitalize the soil and the environment. So what kind of practices are in the regenerative agriculture toolbox, you might ask?
Holistic permaculture and organic farming practices like conservation tillage, cover crops, crop rotation, composting, mobile animal shelters, pasture cropping, aquaculture, agroecology, agroforestry, biochar, holistic planned grazing, no-till farming, perennial crops, and silvopasture are all part of the regenerative agriculture toolbox.
Some of these might sound familiar to you, while others may be brand new, but what they all have in common is that they see the land not as a resource to be used up — or even as something to “do no harm to” — but as a finite resource that needs to be cultivated, revitalized, and built up even better than how we found it. Let’s dive into the details on a few of these ideas — both the familiar and unfamiliar ones.
Composting is probably the most recognizable technique and the closest thing to a mainstream idea on the list. But for the uninitiated, composting is the process of taking old organic food scraps (such as vegetable skins and ends, eggshells, and more) and letting them decompose into a rich fertilizer that can replenish your soil.
Composting is a perfect example of what makes regenerative agriculture unique: it takes something that could be a negative (food waste) and turns it into a positive (fertilizer to replenish your soil)! It’s also the easiest regenerative agriculture technique for most of us non-farmers to incorporate into their lives; if you have a home garden, even a small one, and a bucket with a lid, you can absolutely start composting today!
No-till farming is one of the most important tools in the regenerative agriculture arsenal that allows us to replenish and revitalize degraded soil.
No-till farming actually used to be the dominant form of farming until about 10,000 years ago when tilling and plowing took over. But this so-called innovation actually did a number on the soil by disturbing the structure of the soil, making it more likely to be eroded by wind or water and less able to absorb water and nutrients. Tilling can also displace or even kill the microbes and insects that are part of healthy soil’s biology.
In contrast, no-till farming allows the soil’s structure to stay intact, which increases the soil’s ability to absorb water, reduces soil erosion and runoff — which prevents pollution from getting into any nearby water sources — and allows the organisms in soil to flourish, increasing the soil’s capacity for growing things. Ultimately no-till farming actually leads to increased irrigation efficiency and higher crop yields, especially when the weather is hot and dry — which, as we’ve seen, is definitely something to think about as our planet warms up.
This intriguing-sounding word — from the Latin silva, meaning forest — is actually a pretty simple concept. A form of agroforestry, silvopasture is defined as “the intentional combination of trees, forage plants and livestock together as an integrated, intensively-managed system,” according to the Association for Temperate Agroforestry. Again, it’s more similar to the way we used to farm before the advent of modern farming: combining different types of plants, trees, and animals in an integrated system, rather than siloing them into distinct arenas the way we often do now.
There are a number of benefits to this technique of creating a more biologically diverse system. For one, animal manure, pasture fertilization, and nitrogen-fixing forage species all help improve soil and tree nutrition. Animal grazing control also helps control competing species and reduce fire hazards. And it’s not just the plants that benefit; animals benefit too from the sheltered microclimate that silvopasture provides, resulting in better livestock growth. Sounds like a real win-win!
Perennial crops are crops that, unlike annual crops, don’t need to be replanted each year and grow back automatically after harvest. Fruit trees, alfalfa, grapes, asparagus, and olive trees are all examples of perennial crops.
Because they don’t have to be reseeded or replanted every year, perennial plants don’t need plowing or herbicide applications the same way annual crops do. Because they’re so robust and hardy, they also improve soil structure, protect soil from erosion, and increase the nutrient retention of the ecosystem.
Transitioning away from annual crops and towards more perennial crops could have a huge impact on our climate; folks at the Land Institute call it “the best chance we have to create a truly regenerative food future.”
Biochar is produced when plant matter, manure, or other organic material is burned or heated in a zero- or low-oxygen environment. It’s often inserted or buried in pellet or fragment form into soil, where it can remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it underground where it can’t contribute to global warming. Biochar can also boost the soil’s fertility, increase its ability to withstand drought and flooding, and even rid the soil of pollutants and heavy metals. I’ve used it to store fertilizer and water and slow-release it to needy plants. I’ve also used it to accelerate compost pile degradation and conversion to microbially active and helpful compost.
What makes biochar so great is that both the process by which it’s made and the impact it has when used are in line with the tents of regenerative agriculture. Biochar actually creates clean, renewable energy as a byproduct of its production — talk about regenerative!
Crop rotation is a process by which different types of crops are planted on the same plot of land over the course of different growing seasons. For example, instead of planting corn on the same plot of land year after year, a farmer might plant a year of corn, followed by a year of oats, followed by a year of pasture, giving the soil a chance to rest and regenerate.
This type of crop rotation improves soil health, optimizes the nutrients available in the soil, and can combat pests and weeds. It can also help reduce soil erosion when done on sloping land and add biological diversity.
In fact, as you may have noticed, so many of these techniques have something to do with natural diversity, allowing us to harness the inherent power that plants, animals and more can have when they work together instead of in isolation.
As you can see, regenerative agriculture seems to be the wave of the future — or at least, it should be, if we want to build and maintain a thriving planet, ecosystem, and food future for ourselves and the generations to follow. Right now, with the way things are going, sustainability is simply not enough; we need to think bigger and imagine a future where our relationship with the planet isn’t detrimental — or even just neutral — but positive, healthy, and regenerative.
You can learn more about the pillars of regenerative agriculture and even apply for certification here.
(Remember: ecomedicine is a far more diverse and interesting field than people might realize—it’s much more than just “going outside!”—and so the purpose of these blogs is to show you the exciting range, diversity, and nuance of the many therapeutic interventions that fall under the umbrella of ecomedicine. You can check out the other blogs I’ve written on the site, on topics like gardening for dementia, therapeutic horticulture, pet therapy, adventure therapy, blue care, ecotherapy, care farms, forest bathing, hydrotherapy, breathwork in nature, earthing and grounding, greening the indoors, light therapy, culinary medicinal herbs, culinary medicinal spices, sound therapy/soundscapes, surf therapy, and yoga in nature.)